Most of the time, when heads of state talk about nuclear war, they speak in careful, measured tones, acknowledging the gravity of the nuclear taboo and the consequences of breaking it. The Russian president takes a different approach. Speaking at his annual foreign-policy conference a few years ago, Vladimir Putin reflected, without smiling, on the consequences of a nuclear war. “We will go to heaven as martyrs,” he said, “and they will just drop dead.”
At the same conference last month, a regime insider, Fyodor Lukyanov, asked him about this remark: “You said that we would all go to heaven, but we’re in no hurry to get there, right?” Putin did not answer. The seconds ticked by. Lukyanov said, “You’ve stopped to think. That’s disconcerting.” Putin responded, “I did it on purpose to make you worry a little.”
I did it on purpose to make you worry a little? Why does he want anyone to worry? Because fear is not just a feeling or an ephemeral emotion; it is a physical sensation. It can grip your stomach, freeze your limbs, make your heart beat faster. Fear can distort the way you think and act. Because it can be so paralyzing, human beings have always tried to make other human beings feel fear. If you can make your enemies afraid, they will not oppose you, because they cannot oppose you. You can then win the argument, the battle, or the war without ever having to fight.
Putin is a KGB officer who knows about the manipulation of emotions, fear most of all. For two decades, he has sought to evoke fear inside Russia. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he doesn’t shoot or arrest millions of people. Instead, he uses targeted violence, specially designed to create fear. When the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her Moscow stairwell, and when the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent to prison for a decade, other journalists and other businessmen got the message. When the opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny were murdered and poisoned, respectively, those incidents sent a message too. This isn’t mass terror, but it is just as effective. Fear keeps Putin in power by rendering people too frightened to report news, protest government actions, or conduct independent business or even independent activity of any kind.
Putin also seeks to create fear in the outside world, especially the democratic world. He does this, above all, by bantering about nuclear weapons, at conferences and everywhere else. Indeed, this has been a central subject of his public commentary, and of Russian propaganda more broadly, for many years. Pictures of mushroom clouds appear regularly on the evening news. Threats of nuclear strikes against Ukraine have been made repeatedly, as far back as 2014. Russia’s armed forces practice nuclear strikes as a routine part of military exercises. Back in 2009, they played out a war game that included dropping a nuclear bomb on Poland. This constant, repetitive nuclear signaling, which long predates the current war, has a purpose: to make NATO countries afraid to defend Poland, afraid to defend Ukraine, and afraid to provoke or anger Russia in any way at all.